Slog - The Stranger's Blog

Line Out

The Music Blog

« ... And Then There's the US Co... | 14th & Howell »

Monday, September 4, 2006

I’m in Berlin

Posted by on September 4 at 16:36 PM

Where the street food is fantastic, the early-fall light is idyllic in the late afternoon, the ambulance sirens sound straight out of a 1950s film, and the transit system is phenomenal but, like every other indoor space in the city, strangely overheated. (If anyone can explain to me why everybody wears multiple jackets here, even in 75-degree weather—frequently supplemented by boots, scarves, and fleece hats— e-mail me, please). It’s lovely and urban and gritty here, especially in neighborhoods like Kreuzberg , where I’m writing from an Internet cafe called Cafe Mir. (The waitress has been particularly encouraging of my pitiful gestures at German, but I can tell she’s only humoring me).

For the first few nights, we stayed at the UfaFabrik—a slightly threadbare “intentional community”-turned-“international center for culture and ecology” that offers an impressive cultural and educational program, including a circus, outdoor theater, school, adult-education classes, and cafe. (They also have acres of green roofs and extensive clean-energy and recycling programs.) Like many institutions founded the 1970s, the UfaFabrik has seen better days (many members of its “core group,” which got together in 1972 and occupied the patch of land in the Tempelhof-Schoneberg district of Berlin in 1978, still live there) but it’s charming in its rundown way. And I like the idea that living “ecologically” doesn’t always necessitate going “back to the land”—the neighborhood it’s in is resolutely urban, dense and graffiti-covered as the grittiest part of Berlin.

It’s not just the transit that makes cities like Berlin work, although it does make our puny little 14-mile light rail line look pretty pathetic by comparison. (There are also bike lanes everywhere, and you really will get run over if you walk on them, as I learned from several near-misses today). It’s also the incredible heterogeny of cultures in every neighborhood, the wide sidewalks and tall buildings, and the vast array of public and private outdoor space. Just about every building facade conceals a large interior courtyard, and many of these courtyards contain cafes, art spaces, clubs, and other cool stuff. Most of the bars and cafes here include large outdoor areas, often on the sidewalk, despite the fact that Berlin, like Seattle, gets a lot of rain. (It’s also significantly colder in the winter.) So what’s our problem?

One possible reason for the difference, although it hardly explains it on its own, is the fact that Berliners have a relaxed (one local called it “nihilistic”) attitude toward alcohol consumption and nightlife—much unlike Seattle. No one here appears to worry that allowing sidewalk cafes will encourage illegal drinking (one reason it’s hard for bars in Seattle to get a permit to use the sidewalk, or, conversely, for sidewalk cafes to get a liquor license); in fact, everywhere you look are people schlepping down the street drinking beer. The doner kebap stands even sell small (375-mL) bottles of vodka and Jagermeister along with the ubiquitous Turkish sandwiches.

But there’s something else going on, too: People here seem to have a different attitude toward urban life than we do in shy Seattle. Outdoor seating is oriented toward the street, the better to enable people-watching and interaction. Awnings are omnipresent, making it possible to sit on the sidewalk without worrying about the weather. And even in the seedier neighborhoods, people are out at all hours, putting “eyes on the street” and making things feel relatively safe even when the walls are covered with anti-capitalist graffiti and even with a 17 percent unemployment rate. (As far as I can tell, there’s no state-mandated closing time.)

And the food? you ask. It’s excellent, thanks. Since arriving, I’ve consumed my weight in sausage, beer and Turkish meals; according to my guidebook, Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside Istanbul.

I’ll probably post more later, but for now, I’ll leave you with this photo I took of a machine selling small toys for 20 cents. Steve Jobs, consider yourself warned: Someone in Berlin has it in for you.

CommentsRSS icon

Erica, I had the pleasure of visiting Berlin last year.

I was also very impressed with Berlin's subway system-the U Bahn and the outdoor S-Bahn-They run all over the city, they run in a timely manner, they run all night on the weekends and they've got a sexy german female voice recording telling you to watch the doors and stops.

With the exception of the brats-slimmer and less fatty and greasy than american made ones-I wasn't overly impressed with the food in berlin, with the exception of a visit to a street fair in............Kruezberg: I was able to drink great beer, nosh on baked bread coming straight out of brick ovens on sight, and latin food-piaella and cuba libre drinks. Music of various kinds-techno, jazz, and blues.

Walking through Kruezburg reminded me of the east village. Lots of older apartment buildings and graffiti. I did notice quite a few thai, indonesian, and turkish restaurants--if I ever go back I'll be sure to take advantage of them.

Lots of great museums and galleries too.

Yes, it puts seattle to shame.

Germans are so skinny. Maybe the jacket thing is a product of lacking flesh and circulation making them feel so cold in temperate climates.

Also, one of the byproducts of large crowds and big machines in public transit is... heat. Simple chemistry and physics.

Sounds awesome, Erica. Nothing like a trip to a great city to convince you that American culture is mostly defined by a lack of culture. Seattle thinks it's better, and it is, but not by more than a hairsbreadth. Those of us who have tried to push this city in an interesting direction are shouting into a well.

Germans are skinny? I thought they were all like Sgt. Schultz and those busty ladies with the beer steins you see on the TV. Hotcha!

As far as the whole drinking thing goes, it's obvious that no one is thinking of the children. It's amazing to me that any of them make it to adulthood.

The scarves and multi-layer thing is pan-European.

I used to think it was some sort of post-Marshall-plan anti-American semiotic posture, but then I stayed in my friend's 4th story Brussels walkup, built in the early 1840s and heated with disturbingly rickety gas or oil heaters, ill-fitting but lovely dual balcony doors notwithstanding.

The layering is a reflection of the architecture, which dates back to before this fair city erected its' first log cabin.

I've read that there are plans for 26 skyscrapers planned for downtown. That huge condo complex on Denny is nearly complete. That's another two hundred residences downtown, and everywhere I look, I see another development like that. Given the vastly increasing density of Seattle, isn't it just a matter of time before we fill in the culture from the bottom up?

While you're comparing (European) world cities to Seattle, why not also compare it to Vienna, Paris, Rome, London, and maybe New York?

How 'bout them shit shelves, though ?

(for those who have not yet visited Deutschland, the payload usually doesn't drop into the water in the bowl, it instead lands on a short shelf beneath you and is then theoretically washed off when you flush)

I'll second that, Mr. X. American bathrooms are the BEST of any country I've ever been to. I hear that Japanese toilets are even better, but crapping in Europe is torture, though not as bad as in Morocco.

European plumbing has for the most part caught up with its American counterparts, at least it had when I last spent time on the continent.

The middle east is a different story, however, and even worse if you happen to be left-handed.

I kind of miss Check Point Charlie. Back in the day when political disagreements were out in the open. Not just that but we got along hating each other. Niktika we hardly knew ya.
Ah for the cozy security of the duck-and-cover cold war.

Yo, Erica!

But, how's the sushi? Turkish sandwiches are great, sausage is of course necessary, but how are they with the maki?

You're nuts about the toilets. Sweden has fantastic toilets. So do Denmark and France. Australian toilets are much nicer than ours. In fact, most parts of the developed world have better bathroom fixtures than the US, which is for the most part stuck in 1950. Most US toilets were modified to use the newer low-flush standard without actually redesigning them at all; consequently US toilets require more water and have a much lower waste-removal success rate than just about anywhere. Dual-flush toilets are rare here, commonplace elsewhere. It doesn't take long overseas to realize what a backwards land of outdated, incompetent design this country is.

I haven't tried the sushi, though it is everywhere. I did have a currywurst (basically, sausage with curry ketchup) today, and it was excellent.

Mr. X: The reason for the "shit shelves" is so that (according to my German friends) people can monitor their health by monitoring their "movements" as it were. You can avoid a streaky shelf by putting down some toilet paper ahead of time. My only question is why is all German toilet paper like cardboard. I never understood it as long as I lived there.

But yes, the Doner Kebaps are good, I don't know why we don't have them here in Seattle. And most all of Germany is so environmental, it just makes sense for them to layer, instead of rely on air-conditioning or heaters. In winter the layers are even more pronounced.

Yes, Berlin is amazing, and in most respects kicks Seattle's ass into the gutter. Except for the little part about being able to get a job. Students graduating from university there who aspire to anything beyond full-time graffito or government functionary often find themselves in the less vibrant, more Seattlesque cities to the west. And if you don't go to university? Hope you're happy on the dole.

Having lived there a good long while, I'll also add this: yes, the bars don't ever close, and yes, Berliners have elevated urban life into a marvelous everyday art form. However, take that fabulous public transit to a neighborhood just outside the ones that attract people your age and younger and Turkish families, and you'll find some pretty sleepy streets after 7pm. There may be a few nightclubs there, but the noise will be contained behind tightly closed doors.

You see, Germans over 30 or so don't go whining to their elected officials if their neighbors are a nuisance - they get right up in their faces and let them know. If you walk up the steps to your apartment house in the middle of the night and make the slightest noise, your neighbors will let you know. If your recycling is sorted inaccurately, oh, you'll hear about it. It's a very direct, confrontational culture if you break the sometimes unwritten, unexplicit, communally-understood rules. It's also been a much more homogenous culture than we've got here in the USA, where every bit of civility has to be written down into carefully-crafted law (smoking allowed exactly how many feet from the door?), since Americans can't rely on the assumption that everyone understands an unwritten rule book.

It's increasingly a bullshit assumption in Berlin, though. All those Turkish people living next to the (sometimes too-) vibrant nightlife? Nobody handed them a rule book. Nobody even handed their born-in-Berlin children German citizenship. I'm gonna guess they're not feeling real empowered to go down and tell the bar owner or patrons how they feel about the noise, drunken nuisances, whatever.

Again, Berlin is one of the greatest, most interesting cities in the world, and I love it, and not every Turkish person is oppressed and not every ethnically German person is uptight yet confrontational. I'm just trying to paint in some additional details.

I love world travel especially for the food. People who don't spend at least a month or so outside the United States every year simply don't know how to live. Myself I spend at least two weeks in Paris each year to recharge my batteries and to eat delicious meals.

Thanks, Erica. You can go back on vacation now.

Thanks, Erica. You can go back on vacation now.

"People who don't spend at least a month or so outside the United States every year simply don't know how to live."

A lot of us would like to do it or do it more often if we could, but can afford it financially or timewise.

Hey, JW, what's the economy like? The costs of living? Can the average American make a living there and be able to save, make a comfortable transition (assuming, of course, fleuncy in German), etc?

The housing costs are quite low by Seattle standards, particularly if you don't mind getting up to a freezing cold flat on a winter morning and starting up a coal fire in your charming Victorian-era furnace, which gets less charming over time.

As for making a living, that depends. As Erica mentioned, unemployment in the city is around 20%, much higher than in the rest of the country. As an American, you need some sought-after skills and great contacts. A lot of Germans love Berlin as much as you might, but leave the city in frustration with the job market.

The ol' teaching English gig? Good luck on that "save money" criterion you mention. Unless you have a very technical, sought-after angle (American legal system English, financial services English, etc.)

Like representin' the ol USA? There's the foreign service angle. I don't think you get to just choose where you want to live after jumping through all the hoops to get the job, though.

A great way of making it happen would be a situation where you did some kind of freelance work for American clients while living over there, and then transition that to German clients. The very few professional services companies (like web design and such) that survived in Berlin after the tech bust have employees that find themselves on the train to Frankfurt, Hamburg, etc. all the time. 'Cause that's where the Euros are.

Barnett in the Bunker.

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 45 days old).